Irish priest tests life to the limit

Like the New Zealand film industry, Ireland’s filmmakers operate in parallel to large budget
international productions, with niche offerings that usually display the darker side of society.

Brian Gleeson is Fr James in Calvary and Kelly Reilly plays his daughter.

Although Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot (1989), Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996)), Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes (1999) and Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley
(2006) can be counted as successful Irish films, they are outnumbered by dozens of smaller films.
Those eventually make their way to specialist film channels such as Rialto, but occasionally
one reaches a big audience.
A recent example was The Guard (2012), which has become Ireland’s top box offi ce attraction.
It cast African-American actor Don Cheadle as an FBI investigator hunting drug smugglers. He comes up against a stubborn and stroppy local cop (Brian Gleeson) in a superb take on the dysfunctional “buddy” police comedy.
The same team of Gleeson and writer-director Michael McDonagh is responsible for Calvary (Transmission), which is about a priest and a far from normal community.
In the first few minutes, Fr James (Gleeson) receives a threat, or more a statement, when taking confession. One of his parishioners pledges to kill him in revenge for the Church’s abuse of another man by another priest years before when that man was a boy.
“Certainly a startling opening line,” Fr James replies drily. Fr James warns his bishop and
admits he knows the potential killer but doesn’t let on. Nor does the audience learn until the end, making this more of a “who’s going to do it” rather than a “whodunnit”.
McDonagh says the film is a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess as well as French filmmaker Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.
The various suspects are viewed in the week that unfolds before the appointed day for Fr
James’s assassination. Meanwhile, he must continue to do good despite the challenges of a largely hostile community that is struggling with social division, family breakdown, isolation and the catastrophic economic aftermath of the breakdown of the Celtic “tiger”.
He hears an exaggerated confession of adultery from the butcher’s wife, who also flaunts her
African lover (Isaac De Bankole).
Fr James is harassed by a father when conversing with a young woman, while also being accused
of ignoring the emotional needs of his daughter (he became a priest after being widowed). (This role is played by Kelly Reilly, who is the pastor’s wife in Heaven is for Real, reviewed in Clips.)
Other hostile acts include arson and the killing of a pet.
If The Guard is a dark comedy sneaking in some commentary on justice, then Calvary is much more ambitious. It is about a virtuous man testing his life to the extreme.
A bonus is the strong cast. Another bonus is the superb scenery of coastal Sligo.
Rating: TBC; 100 minutes.

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Michael Otto

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